What is the goal of language learning? Well, that’s a question for another day. However, I will say that I’ve noticed many of my students seem obsessed with perfection in their language learning. They get frustrated when they make mistakes and spend hours studying in an attempt to rid their language of all mistakes. It might come as a surprise to some of them to learn that even native speakers make mistakes too.
Whenever I taught a certain grammar point, if it was one that I had recognized as a common mistake made by native speakers, I always informed my students of this. My intention was to help them relax a bit and realize that even native speakers (those they idolize in their language learning) make mistakes too and that, if they make this particular mistake, they will be understood too. In fact, sometimes speaking properly comes across as being uptight or thinking you’re better than others, showing off your education, etc. That’s not to say I encourage language students to make mistakes, and often people who speak a second language speak it better than native speakers, at least in the sense that they have the correct grammar; they may not necessarily sound like a native speaker.
Then again, it might be helpful to teach students such mistakes if they really want to speak like a native speaker. Making such mistakes and introducing slang that is based on grammatical errors could help students when interacting with other native speakers. But, again, that’s a question for another day.
Anyway, I got to wondering why native speakers make these mistakes. Of course, one possible reason is lack of education. Native speakers don’t grow up learning their language in an academic setting; they just seem to pick it up. Therefore, many probably don’t even know that they’re making a mistake. This would then mean that they’re making an error, not a mistake, because they haven’t yet learned what is correct.
The issue of mistakes/errors is also closely linked to the issue of fluency which I previously discussed. Does making mistakes or having errors mean you’re not fluent? In the school where I worked the emphasis was on communication, not perfection. Many people aren’t “fluent” in a language and can still communicate effectively and get their point across. Some might argue that even native speakers make numerous errors and are still understood perfectly well and no one would think that they’re not a native speaker.
Problems might come when such errors impede communication and understanding. I’ve noticed that most of these problems occur in written English as opposed to spoken English. Most of these problems are related to spelling or involve words that are similar but have different meanings. In spoken English, the most popular mistakes I’ve come across are a tendency to say “there is” plus a plural instead of “there are” and using “good” instead of “well.” Due to the fact that most people don’t know that it’s an error, there is often no misunderstanding. Those who do know it’s an error also understand. So is this really a problem?
I also got to thinking about other languages. Do they also have such mistakes? In my studies of Russian I’ve come across some technical mistakes that I’ve heard spoken in everyday Russian. Are the reasons for this the same? Do all languages have this trait? Why do we teach perfect grammar instead of the true, spoken language? Should we adapt grammar rules to accommodate this?
Are there easy answers to these questions? I highly doubt it. But they’re questions I can’t help but ask find myself wondering about. And I continue to be fascinated by all aspects of language learning… For those who find these mistakes interesting, enjoy studying English grammar and want to improve their own English, here are several links to common English errors: